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Fleas are the most common external pest causing irritation and discomfort to dogs and cats. Flea infestations are not usually fatal; however, puppies, kittens, and debilitated pets can become quite ill and even die due to blood loss from heavy flea infestation (fleas suck blood from their hosts). Fleas most commonly cause irritation to infested pets. Dogs and cats with flea allergies can experience intense itching and secondary skin infections. Only one flea bite is necessary to cause severe signs in flea-allergic pets; in many flea-allergic pets, no fleas are ever found.

Finally, fleas are also the intermediate host for the common dog and cat tapeworm. Finding tapeworms in the pet’s feces, or finding flea fecal material (“flea dirt,” small black flecks of blood located on the pet that turn red when mixed with water) is evidence of flea infestation even if no adult fleas are seen.

Treating fleas either with natural or conventional therapies (or both) require treating the pet, indoor environment, and outdoor environment. Owners should keep in mind there are four stages of the flea life cycle: adult (the only stage that occurs on the pet and makes up five to ten percent of the entire flea population), egg, larvae, and cocoon. Since 90 to 95 percent of the flea population (the eggs, larvae, and cocoons) occurs in the environment (house and yard) rather than on the pet, flea-control programs must concentrate their efforts there, or the programs will fail.

Other Natural Treatments for Fleas and Ticks

While generally considered to be less toxic than even the newer, safer chemicals recommended for flea control, the main drawback to using natural treatments for flea control on the pet is the need for frequent application. Natural products are quite useful in the environment and usually do not require frequent applications.

Treatments for flea control on the pet and in the environment include neem, citronella, diatomaceous earth, sodium polysorbate, and beneficial nematodes. Herbs to be given orally include garlic, burdock root, dandelion, and red clover. Herbs to be given topically include feverfew, pyrethrum, mullein, Canadian fleabane, and pennyroyal oil, which has potential toxicity.

As with any condition, the most healthful natural diet will improve the pet’s overall health.

Itching can be controlled with low doses or corticosteroids or natural therapies including Xiao Skin Allergy Relief (

Conventional Therapy for Fleas and Ticks

Conventional therapies involve the use of various chemicals such as carbamates, organophosphates, synthetic pyrethrins, and insect growth regulators such as methoprene, to kill fleas. There are no conventional treatments to eliminate the cocoon stage of the flea life cycle.

The newer conventional therapies for flea (and tick) control appear to be safer and work better than products available years ago. Ideally, problems are best prevented rather than treated. Since the advent of products such as Program, Advantage, and Frontline, owners can now have year-round or seasonal prevention for their pets rather than wait until severe flea infestation occurs. Preventing problems allows owners to use fewer chemicals in their approach than waiting to treat problems that require more chemicals used for greater lengths of time.

The newer chemicals work much better than past treatments of toxic dips, powders, sprays, and collars. By their modes of action and application, they are safer for pets, owners, and the environment. Still, these products are chemicals; when possible, more natural preventive measures are recommended. In addition, when possible, these (and other unnecessary) chemicals should be avoided in pets with chronic diseases, including allergies, cancer, epilepsy, feline leukemia virus infection, feline immunodeficiency infection, autoimmune diseases, and any other conditions where extraneous application or ingestion of chemicals is best avoided.

Toxicity that occurs with conventional flea treatments mainly involves the central nervous system, usually by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase, the enzyme that degrades the major nerve transmitter acetylcholine. Using the products on an as-needed basis, following label directions, and working with your veterinarian to use the least toxic products (for example, a pyrethrin outdoor spray or methoprene indoors rather than an organophosphate) will allow most products to be used safely when indicated.

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Shawn Messonnier, DVM

As my thank you for reading my articles, enter code “drshawn” at my natural products web store,, to save 10% on all your future purchases!

Shawn Messonnier DVM Past Supporting Member, Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians Author, the award-winning The Natural Health Bible for Dogs & Cats, The Natural Vet’s Guide to Preventing and Treating Cancer in Dogs, and Breast Choices for the Best Chances: Your Breasts, Your Life, and How YOU Can Win The Battle!

Check out Dr. Shawn’s line of all natural pet products at...